Ancient populations across the globe successfully employed wetland agricultural techniques in a variety of environmentally and climatically diverse landscapes throughout prehistory. Within the Maya Lowlands, these agricultural features figure prominently in the region comprised of northern Belize and southern Quintana Roo, an area supporting low-outflow rivers, large lagoons, and numerous bajo (swamp) features. Along the banks of the Hondo and New Rivers, the Maya effectively utilized wetland agricultural practices from the Middle Preclassic to the Terminal Classic Periods (1000 B.C. - A.D. 950). A number of past archaeological projects have thoroughly examined the construction and impact of these swampland modifications. After four decades of study, a more precise picture has formed in relation to the roles that these ditched field systems played in the regional development of the area. However, a detailed record of the full spatial extent, combined construction costs, and potential agricultural productivity has not been attempted on a larger scale. This thesis highlights these avenues of interest through data obtained from high- and medium-resolution satellite imagery and manipulated through geographic information systems (GIS) technology. The research explores environmental factors and topographic elements dictating the distribution of such entities, the energetic involvement required to construct and maintain the systems, and the efficiency of wetland techniques as compared to traditional milpa agriculture. Spatial analyses reveal a total of 254 distinct wetland field systems within the 6560 square kilometer area of interest, clustered along navigable waterways, seasonal lagoons, and upland landscapes separating the Hondo and New Rivers. Energetic estimates illustrate substantial investment in wetland field construction, spanning several generations based on a locally available workforce. However, productivity calculations associated with the ditched field systems commonly exceed those attributed to milpa techniques, suggesting agricultural surplus far beyond the immediate need. These combined data indicate the potential export of maize and other agricultural commodities to regional centers in northern Belize and further abroad during the Late Preclassic and Late to Terminal Classic Periods through riverine trade networks. Additionally, these data help illustrate participation trends and patterns of connectivity relating to tiered sites within the area of interest. This research contributes to the overall understanding of wetland agriculture within Mesoamerica as well as provides insight into the political management of intensive agricultural production during Maya prehistory.


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Graduation Date





Chase, Arlen


Master of Arts (M.A.)


College of Sciences



Degree Program










Release Date

August 2016

Length of Campus-only Access


Access Status

Masters Thesis (Open Access)

Included in

Anthropology Commons